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What I've Been Drinking Lately: The Age of 'Hot Vintages'
By John Anderson
Oct 26, 2021
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At Cape Cod in August and drinking mostly young, French wines, I was struck again and again by how often the first words that came out of my mouth or that merely popped into mind were:  “Hot vintage.”

And this was true, pretty much across the board, from Burgundy to Bordeaux, Alsace to the Loire Valley in vintages like ’15, ’18, and ’19, to be sure.  This is what Climate Change has wrought:  Early harvests, often in simmering heat, as early sometimes as the beginning of August, with resulting grapes that are ripe or even overripe, resulting in higher alcohol levels, 14.5%, 15%, occasionally 15.5%.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  I am old enough to remember when many a Bordeaux vintage, harvested late in September or even October, produced wines that were thin and acidic, with a stated alcohol level of 11.5% or even 11%.  Many a wine produced under those adverse conditions was rightly dismissed as “nasty.”  Because it was nasty.  The ’77 Bordeaux come instantly to mind, and, especially, the Right Bank wines from that year. In the early ‘80s, the high-end Philadelphia Bourse “Specialty Shoppe” of the Pennsylvania State Store system featured many a ’77 Grand Cru Classé St. Emilion in its original wooden case—and sold the stuff for $5 a bottle.  I bought a couple cases of these—and lived to regret it!  Afterwards, I thought to myself:  “And you wondered what happens to the wines from off-vintages.” But I also remember drinking the occasional bottle of ’72, ’69, ’68 and ’65 Bordeaux, and these were still worse.  Often they were chaptalized, a technique named for the French chemist Antoine Claude Chaptal, in which sugar is added to the grape must before fermentation to increase the wine’s alcohol content.  Although this technique, which is still allowed, would correct a low alcohol, it rarely put the wine into balance because it could not correct other deficiencies of insufficient ripeness.  

So, no, I will be the last person to sneer at these ripe, “modern” vintages, not only because I know the history (the flip side of the coin), but also, more importantly, because I know that these softer, gentler, more approachable vintages have great appeal to a large audience of wine drinkers.  In time, I believe they will have proven to be “door-openers,” as it were, to many a new wine lover.  

Where I think the recent spate of hot vintages has been a real boon is in areas that are somewhat colder, higher and given to producing slightly unripe grapes.  That and for grape varieties like the aligoté, which in the past tended to produce rather acidic wines.  

Remember, in the not so distant past, the major way consumers drank Aligoté was mixed with a dollop of cassis in a drink called a Kir, named after the famous mayor of Dijon, priest and resistance fighter Canon Félix Kir, who allegedly invented it.  No longer.  

All that said, the wines of these “Hot Vintages” are, by and large, different.  They are softer, they are gentler, and they are more approachable, especially in their youth.

Here’s a potpourri of these “Hot Vintage” young French wines tasted at the Cape and now during these last days of summer in the Hudson Valley that I recommend are:   

2020 Chinon Rosé (Domaine Bernard Baudry), which had an appealing light pink color—a touch orange perhaps as well—and was equally appealing on the palate.  A perfect summer thirst quencher and a good buy at $20 per bottle from the estimable Loire specialists Louis-Dressner.  

2018 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sûr Lie “Clos des Allés” (Domaine Luneau-Papin), for long a flagship wine of the Louis-Dressner portfolio, and still a very fine wine at that; but, also, one in which the vintage really showed its tell-tale hand.  Perhaps not quite as thrilling as in some past vintages.  But perhaps I am being extra hard on a wine I greatly admire.  The price remains keen:  About $20 the bottle.

2018 Côte de Brouilly (Château Thivin), from what is, for me, regularly one of the two or three finest wines of this small, exceptionally high-quality Beaujolais cru.  Here, the expert, longtime owners managed to tamp down any hint of overripeness; and it resulted in a wonderful example of both year and terroir.  A great success.  About $27 the bottle.

2018 and 2019 Mâcon Chardonnay (Domaine Thalmard).  I rather preferred the classic ’19, which was fresher and zestier, but both wines were minerally and, well, tasty!  Absolutely yummy examples of just how good these Mâconnais wines can be.  I love the Thalmard wines.  They also represent incredible value at about $15 the bottle and are brought in by Vintus, another of my favorite importers and the successor firm to the fabled Ex Cellars wine agency.

2018 Château Recougne Bordeaux Supérieure rouge is another Vintus exclusive inherited from the Ex Cellars stable, and with its $15 or so the bottle price tag, an old beloved friend of mine.  Talk about your Bang for Buck!  My note written on a blazingly hot day at the Cape reads: “The alcohol shows, the hot vintage shows.”  True, and the 14.5% struck me as more like 15%, but the wine is  also rich, raisiny and long on the vintage.  Beat that for the price!

2018 Alsace Riesling “Grande Réserve” (Pierre Sparr), about $15. Very light and somewhat spritzy.  Hardly “Grande Réserve,” whatever that means!  But  nevertheless very Alsace riesling in character—already a bit “petrolly”—and oh so inviting on a hot summer day out on the terrace.  Not to mention, very, very good value at this price.

2018 Bourgogne Aligoté (Domaine Henri Prudhon & Fils) about $25 a bottle.  Prudhon is one of the great names in Saint-Aubin, for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  But the Aligoté is something of a speciality of the Prudhons. The extra summer heat did no harm here!  Minerals blend in with the creamy texture of a warm, not to say “hot” vintage.  No need for cassis in this glass!  From the admirable Neal Rosenthal stable.

But then, back home in the Wilds of Westchester, as a bonne bouche as it were, I retreated into my cellar and opened a bottle from the original Hot Burgundy Vintage, the 2003 Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru “Clos Saint-Jacques” (Domaine Louis Jadot), 13.5% stated alcohol.  My note: “Despite the parching hot summer heat and super-early August harvest date, the wine proved much better and much better balanced than I had expected.  Dark black fruit, dark-colored fruit at that.  Just a bit short perhaps.  Thoroughly enjoyable, tasted over three nights.  That said, I truly hope this isn’t the fate of Burgundy.  Impressive it was, but charming and ethereal, it was not.”



Read more wine columns:    John Anderson